108 of 113 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2004
You must think you are the cat's patoot, so sure you know everything. You paid attention in class, got good grades, and everything Mr. or Mrs. Insert Teacher's Name Here said was true because they had a college degree and the bravery to stand in front of a bunch of slack jawed kids and try to teach them something. Well, have I got the book for you.
Richard Zacks explodes our often mythic look at the world. This is not just another "your teacher lied to you in school" book. Zacks backs up his own history with actual primary source documentation. As he writes, "I started muttering, 'You can't make this stuff up!'."
Zacks has divided the book into ten different sections: Arts & Literature, Business, Crime & Punishment, Everyday Life, Medicine, Religion, Science, Sex, World History, and American History. While each section can be read separately, it may be hard to put down the book after just one helping. Zacks covers a wide range of topics, but always keeps his writing simple and unpedestrian. You quickly realize that all of these icons in history were actually people just like you and me. Mata Hari was no genius spy, her mug shot taken before her execution shows a plain woman in her early forties.
William Shakespeare used to write down to his common audiences, letting loose with filthy puns lost on today's students. Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin, two of America's greatest humorists, both worked blue, writing material that you will not see in copies of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" or "Poor Richard's Almanack." You think Iraqi war profiteering is something new? Pity the poor soldiers of the Civil War, eating rancid meat and trying to fight with ancient weaponry all sold to the United States government by greedy business tycoons.
Speaking of the Civil War, did you know that almost a million slaves held in the Union states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were not freed until AFTER their enslaved brothers to the south? Thank the thirteenth amendment, since the Emancipation Proclamation only dealt with slaves in the Confederacy.
The material covered is immense, from the race to build the first electric chair to the world's first indoor toilet. Hermaphrodites, bestiality, and a pope pushing cocaine laced wine, oh my!
Zacks litters his text with photos, but they add to the prose. He lets his opinions be known often, from his outrage over the lynchings of the early twentieth century, to defending Amerigo Vespucci in light of criticism by others. Christopher Columbus does not get off as easily. He highlights the common as well as royal historical figures
"An Underground Education" is a very good read. Once in a while, Zacks makes his point early, and a couple of vignettes run a little long (especially privateers in the Revolutionary War, and some of the business anecdotes), but the things you discover will outweigh any boredom you feel. If education is the key to success, then Zacks takes that key and breaks it off in the lock.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2005
... be warned. If you're like me, you've read the reviews and you can think of half a dozen people who you should buy "An Underground Education" for as a present. How perfect it will be for your boss, and your brother, and your dad/
Well, maybe not Dad. I had intended this to be a Christmas present for my father, but when I received my copy, I realized that there was a problem. "An Underground Education" is littered with photographs, and while that sounds good, there are castrated men (full frontal), lots of early porn, and all sorts of other fascinating and freaky things. It's all very interesting, except that I cannot even begin to imagine giving it to my father...
It's still a good read, though, and I highly recommend it. Just not as a gift for ol' Dad.
58 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2000
An Underground Education has an admirable premise: fill us in on, or disabuse the reader of, various myths, misconceptions, suppressed facts, the "Arcana Mundi." And indeed, Richard Zachs does this with some skill, energy and wit. However, the information contained in the book, despite being divided by topics such as politics, art, and of course, sex, is too brief: By trying to touch on just about everything under the sun (or should I write, hiding in the shadows?) in the less-pristine history of humanity, the author falls prey to his own dislike of ignorance, dogmatic teaching, and general ineptness among supposed scholars and luminaries.
For example, in his discussion of the long-toed shoes, or poulaines, which he rightly places after his juicily giddy discussion of codpieces, he fails to explore the equally juicy history of the poulaines; European folk beliefs equated foot-fize with penis-size (think also of noses...) and the tips of the poulaines were thus phallic symbols. The tops of poulaines were also often painted with images of male genitals.
The author also fails completely to discuss (was he even aware) the female-analogue of the codpiece: the merkin, or a wig for the pubes...One has to dig for this sort of information. To look at the bibliography, the author consults with, at most, two or three sources when writing his entries. In effect, he has done little of his own research, despite crowing about his own linguistic abilities. Ovid's Ars Amatoria surely belongs somewhere in this book; sadly, Latin is not listed as one of the author's mastered languages. There are good translations, to be sure.
Another example: Mr. Zachs labors to tell us about Joan of Arc's clothing, and correctly points out the her then-crime of wearing men's clothing; and also that she died at the hands (or whims?) of France and the Holy Catholic Church. However, he fails to strip away the saviour/warrior myths of St. Joan. She was an extraordinary young woman in many ways, but she was not at all like the statuesque Milla Jovovich hacking her way through the enemies of France. Mr. Zachs simply has not bothered, in several instances, to question his own assumptions and erroneous teachings, and this harms an otherwise entertaining and at times biting social commentary.
Other nit-picking: Either his editor was asleep, or Mr. Zachs himself missed the boat again and again when going over the galleys before the final printing: weird punctuation, odd word-choice and usage, fanciful grammer. This could have been a much better book, had he narrowed his scope, looked more deeply into his subjects, and learned how to punctuate.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2003
I am a reader. I'll read anything once. That doesnt mean I'll alawys like it though. THis book was great!
Zacks investigatges obscure tidbits from history, science, art, etc; and writes a very imforative book. THe nice thing is he tells you all his sources for information in the back, so if you do not believe him you can check it out.
Now normally, one would assume that a book of facts would be boring. This is not the case! Its really funny. He writes as if he's your uncle Larry telling you a funny ancedote at the dinner table. It is a hilarious, eye-opening book.
Some of the things he writes about are:
George Washington did not have wooden teeth....
And he was not the first president of the US...
Cleopatra was really ugly...
Edison and inventing the electric chair....
These are just a few of the ones that stuck out to me. THere are hundreds of these. The are written nice and short. This book is perfect if you want some light reading. It is very easy to just read a few blurbs (there might be 2 to a page average) or read a whole list of them. The book is also very organized and easy to find. If you are only intersted in science and nature, you can just turn to that section. If business, or art, or history, or sex, only intersts you, you can just turn to that.
The index is also very inclusive.
I do not think this book is good for children. There are some very racy topics. But they are done in a tasteful manner. A mature high schoool student could handle this, but I would not give it to a middle school or gradeschooler. Its not a dirty book but it does mention some controversial topics like sappho's sexual orientation and the presence of hermaphrodites in ancient greek art.
Though this book is good for almost anyone looking for a quick enjoyable read, if you like history or literature this book is even more appropriate.
Sorry to have rambled but this is my alltime favorite book.
If you want to take a chance on something, try this one.
It really is worth it!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
An Underground Education
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Sigh, just another 98 times and then I have to go home and start my history homework. I guess my teacher didn't like some of my more creative answers to the exam. What does she know? She is totally oblivious to Area 51, Tesla's death ray, or that Hitler's Brain is hooked up to a supercomputer and is the president of Brazil. I love reading, but she makes history soooo boring. She just teaches us what we are supposed to know. Nothing I'm not supposed to know, nothing quirky or surprising, or interesting. I mean, why did Napoleon really lose the battle of Waterloo? * Textbooks can be so plodding, far too logical and way too orderly. History is messy and it can be amusing and not so serious, and even a little bizarre...
I want to know the good stuff and that's why I turned to An Underground Education: The Unauthorized And Outrageous Supplement To Everything You Thought You Knew About Art, Sex, Business, Crime, Science, Medicine, And Other Fields Of Human Knowledge by Richard Zacks. Forget what you learned in school, and the teacher's angry red marker. Zacks debunks many popular cultural myths and gives new life to old history. Zacks has divided the book into ten different sections: Arts & Literature, Business, Crime & Punishment, Everyday Life, Medicine, Religion, Science, Sex, World History, and American History.
Zacks covers a wide variety of topics, but he keeps the writing simple and attention grabbing. His emphasis, however, is definitely on the strange and often perverse. So, if you are easily offended, and a bit conservative you should probably skip this book. I mean the title does have business and sex in the title, so that should tell you it's not for the thin-skinned. For example, you might read today's headlines and get the impression that Iraqi War profiteering is something new, but the unfortunate soldiers of the Civil War often wore shoes with no soles, slept in disintegrating tents, and fired weapons that blew up in their hands, all due to the greed of America's great capitalists.
Surely you would have paid more attention in English class if you knew the Bard was so bawdy or that Chaucer made sly jokes about sex. Sure, you knew Edison was credited for inventing the incandescent light bulb, but did you know he secretly helped develop the electric chair in a devious scheme to have the death-dealing device named after his archrival, George Westinghouse? There are lots of interesting facts and tidbits, though it's far from complete. For example, he joyfully explores the evolution of the codpiece, but skips over the symbolism of the long-toed shoes, or poulaines. European folk beliefs equated foot-size with penis-size (think also of noses...) and the tips of the poulaines were thus phallic symbols. The tops of poulaines were also often painted with images of male genitals. You just can't make this stuff up!
Yes, history is way more interesting, and vastly more complicated, than the dried-out sentences in high school history books that leave me feeling deeply unsatisfied. Perhaps great men and women should be pushed off their pedestals. They do not stand on the shoulders of giants (not an admission of humility by Sir Isaac Newton, but rather a bitter insult to a hunchbacked dwarf he was feuding with); they are human, like you and me. Made of flesh and blood and sometimes just a little strange-the famous Mari Hari was no master spy, Cleopatra was ugly as sin, and Pope Innocent III authorized a holy quest for Jesus' foreskin. I guess history can be entertaining, warped and worth remembering. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it...
*Theories abound, but the brilliant strategist had a raging case of hemorrhoids, which prevented him from riding out and surveying the troops. Ahh, but for a nail...
History, condemned repeating it, or seeing if we can escape it? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Miss a column? Our archives are available at [...] read the history of Hobo in "Hobo Finds A Home" A charming story about a barn cat who wants more out of life. Don't miss the in depth documentary about Hobo the cat, soon to be aired on the History Channel
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2004
This book has kept me up for three nights because I can't put it down. It has something for everyone. I wasn't totally interested in the business section, (not my thing) but there's so much more to the book it didn't matter. Sacks references to other books in his book got me to order two more books from Amazon to further my "education" on certain subjects. Wonderful.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 1997
FINALLY! "An Underground Education" is a rollicking, ambrosial feast packed full of deliciously naughty, historical facts about popes, inventors, sinners and saints and some truly stupendous pictures! This isn't just a book that blasts cobwebs out of the closet, it's a thrilling Harley-Davidson ride into the past! I couldn't put it down. Richard Zacks, with immense charm and wit, happily drags the reader back in time-- engaging all of one's senses-- fleshing out the cracked, brittle bones of history, and making the blood of history flow red, warm and gritty again! The extensive research is impressive, as the author gleefully bounces from one grotesque photo, to yet another hysterically funny, or profane, historical anecdote. I loved this brilliantly entertaining book so much, it's on the very TOP of my holiday gift list!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 1999
This book was definitely one of the better trivia-oriented books I have read. It goes deep into the details that everyone wants to know about, in some strange fascinating sort-of way, such as Queen Anne and her merry maids at the dinner table, or strange facts on corsets. It's got everything from executions to cults. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning the little quirks in history.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2006
An absolutely marvelous examination of those historical tid-bits that they never teach you in school, like the indecent forgotten parts of the Bible, the sexual side of slavery, and the evolution of underwear. Ah, but we're here to discuss the morbid side of life, and there's a lot of disturbing darkness scattered throughout the book, especially in the "Crime & Punishment" and "Medicine" chapters. An immensely fascinating and enlightening book - highly, highly recommended!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2005
This book is an irreverent collection of interesting but mostly unimportant historical anecdotes.
A sampling of stories that I enjoyed:
The fork (at least as used for eating) was initially condemned as "the devil's pitchfork" by priests who thought people ought to eat with their hands.
Witchcraft prosecutions were motivated at least in part by the desire of churches and civil authorities to get the property of the accused, until a legal change in 1630 prevented them from getting such property. Similar motivations for the inquisition, where property could be confiscated decades after the death of an alleged heretic how had owned it.
He describes mail order porn in 1863.
He has a photo of George Washington's dentures, made from human teeth (presumably taken from dead soldiers).
The medieval church forbade doctors from dissecting human corpses to learn about anatomy and forbade surgery. Some of the other medical anecdotes suggest that there have been many times when patients would have been better off if the prohibition on surgery had lasted longer.
Don't expect too much wisdom from these stories. One isolated place where he attempts a non-shallow analysis is when he asks "How did child labor start in America, and why was it widely tolerated"? Unfortunately, his attempts to analyze this merely consist of finding reports of child labor earlier than he thinks his readers expect. It doesn't occur to him to ask whether people could even afford to do without child labor before the industrial revolution.